S. Epatha Merkerson

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S. Epatha Merkerson
BornSharon Epatha Merkerson
(1952-11-28) November 28, 1952 (age 61)
Saginaw, Michigan, United States
Years active1986–present
Spouse(s)Toussaint Louverture Jones, Jr. (1994-2006; divorced)
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S. Epatha Merkerson
BornSharon Epatha Merkerson
(1952-11-28) November 28, 1952 (age 61)
Saginaw, Michigan, United States
Years active1986–present
Spouse(s)Toussaint Louverture Jones, Jr. (1994-2006; divorced)

S. Epatha Merkerson (/iˈpθə/; born Sharon Epatha Merkerson; November 28, 1952)[1] is an American film, stage, and television actress. She has won a Golden Globe, an Emmy Award, a Screen Actors Guild Award, an Obie Award and four NAACP Image Awards. She has also received two Tony Award nominations. She is best known for her role as NYPD Lieutenant Anita Van Buren from 1993 to 2010[2] on the long-running NBC police procedural drama series Law & Order. She appeared in 391 episodes of the series—more than any other cast member.[3]

In 2012, Merkerson became the host of Find Our Missing, a reality-reenactment series on TV One which profiles missing people of color.[4]

Early life[edit]

Merkerson, the youngest of five children, was born in Saginaw, Michigan. Her mother, Ann, was, at the time, the only female in the vehicles operation unit at the Detroit Post Office. Her father worked in a factory.[5][6] Merkerson's parents separated in 1957.

Merkerson has often been reticent about revealing what her first name really was (Sharon). On the June 11, 2005, episode of NPR's Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me!,[7] she jokingly claimed that the initial "S," "stands for 'Sweet' [because] so many people have difficulty with Epatha, which is what I prefer to be called". She has legally changed her first name to S.[8] During a segment on the January 31, 2012, episode of The Wendy Williams Show, when questioned about the origin of her name, Merkerson shared that "Epatha" was the name of "a grade-school teacher who was influential in keeping [her father] in school."[3] She further went on to clarify that she prefers to be addressed as "Epatha" as opposed to "S. Epatha."[3]

Merkerson graduated from Cooley High School in 1970. She earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts Degree from Wayne State University and began her New York theater career in 1978. She was conferred an Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters from Wayne State University in May 2009.[6]


Merkerson made her television debut as Reba the Mail Lady on Pee-wee's Playhouse. "It was one of those wild things where I went to audition. And I thought I was funny and the person I auditioned for didn't, and so I had blown the job and I guess weeks later they got new casting people," Merkerson said on the NPR program Tell Me More. "I didn't know who Pee-wee Herman was, so if, you know, for fans of the show, if they watch like the first episode that I ever did, I think it was a big party and he just kept making me laugh because I had never seen the character before. And the director was angry and he was like how can we get through this scene? And I said I have to look at the plate. So the entire [time] he's serving hors d'oeuvres, I'm looking at the plate, and we're still good buddies. He still, to this day, knows how to make me laugh like no one else, Paul Reubens".[9] Merkerson has also appeared on The Cosby Show, among other series.[6]

She appeared in the first-season Law & Order episode "Mushrooms," in which she portrayed the grief-stricken mother of an 11-month-old boy who is shot accidentally. Her performance impressed the producers enough to select Merkerson to replace Dann Florek as detective squad chief in the series' fourth season.

Merkerson was nominated for a Tony Award as Best Featured Actress in a Play for her performance as Berniece in August Wilson's Pulitzer Prize–winning play The Piano Lesson and won an Obie Award in 1992 for her work in I'm Not Stupid.[6] Prior to her role as Berniece in ″The Piano Lesson,″ she assumed the lead role in the one-woman play, ″Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill,″ after Lonette McKee [10] left the role due to health reasons in 1987. Her screen credits include Jacob's Ladder, Loose Cannons, She's Gotta Have It and James Cameron's Terminator 2: Judgment Day, in which she played the terrified wife of Joe Morton. In 2006, she won Golden Globe, Emmy and Screen Actors Guild awards for her performance in the television movie Lackawanna Blues, her first starring role.[6] In 2007, she starred on stage in Los Angeles in William Inge's Come Back, Little Sheba at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in the role made famous by Shirley Booth, and in January 2008 opened on Broadway in the production. For the revival of Come Back, Little Sheba, Merkerson earned her second Tony nomination.

In November 2007, Merkerson appeared in a television commercial for Coricidin HBP. Merkerson also appears in a series of commercials for Uni-Ball pens, directed by Emmy nominee Brent Roske, and in an American Express/NBC Universal ad for the Shine the Light program, in which she speaks highly of a restaurant not far from her then-home in Harlem.

On April 1, 2010, it was confirmed that after 17 seasons, Merkerson would leave Law & Order at the end of the show's twentieth season.[2] Her departure from Law & Order, which aired on May 24, 2010, was also the show's final episode. In total, Merkerson had appeared on the series for 16 consecutive seasons (391 episodes)—longer than any other actor associated with the program.[11] Merkerson's character is also the longest-running, African-American character in the history of primetime television.[3]

In 2012, Merkerson became the host of the show Find Our Missing which highlights the search for missing people of color. It is designed to put names and faces to people of color who have disappeared without a trace. Each episode tells the story of the missing person or persons, beginning with the day they vanished and the frantic searches by loved ones and investigators to find them. Find Our Missing provides insight into these victims’ lives–their hopes and dreams, what makes them tick, and how they have touched those around them—from the people who know them best. The episodes chronicle the investigations into their disappearances, and why the search for them so far has only turned up dead ends.

Merkerson also appeared in Steven Spielberg's 2012 film Lincoln as Lydia Hamilton Smith, housekeeper to Congressman Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones).

In 2014, Merkerson will appear in the Primary Stages production of While I Yet Live.

Personal life[edit]

Merkerson was formerly married to Toussaint L. Jones. She lives in the Washington Heights section of New York City. Her brother, Barrie Merkerson, currently works as an attorney for the city of Detroit.

Merkerson is an outspoken advocate against smoking and for lung cancer research and awareness. When she guest-hosted on The View on March 2, 2007, she discussed her 23-year addiction to cigarettes, which ended in the early '90s after she woke up one morning unable to breathe. Until May 2007, she sat on the Board of Directors of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.

She teaches acting at City College of New York.

For her role as Van Buren on Law & Order, she wore a wig. Her real hair is made up in short locks. Merkerson decided to wear a wig for the role to look more "professional".

In December 2008, Merkerson was sued for $222,908.40 by the Gersh Agency, a talent agency which claimed that they had an oral agreement with Merkerson to represent her at a rate of 10% commission.[12]


1986She's Gotta Have ItDoctor Jamison
1986–89Pee-wee's PlayhouseReba the Mail Woman6 episodes
1988The Cosby ShowBook Club Member #5Episode: "Bookworm"
1989CBS Summer PlayhouseJimmieEpisode: "Elysian Fields"
1990Loose CannonsRachel
1990Jacob's LadderElsa
1990Equal JusticeMrs. WaltersEpisode: "Pilot"
1990Navy SealsJolena
1991Terminator 2: Judgment DayTarissa Dyson
1991Law & OrderDenise WintersEpisode: "Mushroom"
1992Mann & MachineCapt. Margaret Claghorn9 episodes
1992–93Here and NowMs. St. Marth13 episodes
1993–2010Law & OrderAnita Van Buren390 episodes
Image Award for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series (2006, 2010-2011)
Nominated—Image Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series (1997-1999, 2001)
Nominated—Image Award for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series (2007-2009)
Nominated—Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble in a Drama Series (1995-2004)
1994A Place for AnnieAliceTV movie
1995A Mother's PrayerRubyTV movie
1998ExiledAnita Van BurenTV movie
1999Random HeartsNea
2000FrasierDr. McCaskillEpisode: "Dark Side of the Moon"
2001The Rising PlaceLessie Watson
2001A Girl ThingLaniTV movie
2001Art:21HerselfEpisode: "Spirituality"
2002Law & Order: Criminal IntentAnita Van BurenEpisode: "Badge"
2004Jersey GirlDoctor
2005Lackawanna BluesRachel "Nanny" CrosbyTV movie
Black Reel Award for Best Actress – Miniseries or Television Film
Golden Globe Award for Best Actress – Miniseries or Television Film
Gracie Allen Award for Best Outstanding Lead Actress in a Miniseries
Image Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Miniseries or Television Film
Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Miniseries or a Movie
Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Miniseries or Television Movie
Nominated—Independent Spirit Award for Best Female Lead
Nominated—Satellite Award for Best Actress – Miniseries or Television Film
2005Law & Order: Trial by JuryAnita Van BurenEpisode: "Skeleton"
2006Black Snake MoanAngela
2007Girl, PositiveAriel WintersTV movie
Nominated—Image Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Miniseries or Television Film
2007The CloserDr. Rebecca Dioli3 episodes
2009The Six Wives of Henry LefayEffa
2009Mother and ChildAda
2012Find Our MissingHerself
2012Drop Dead DivaJudge HillerEpisode: "Lady Parts"
2012LincolnLydia Smith
2013The Good WifeJudge Melanie EllisEpisode: "Going for the Gold"
2013DeceptionBeverly3 episodes
2013Tyler Perry Presents PeeplesDaphne Peeples
2014The Gabby Douglas StoryMiss CarolineTV movie

Awards and nominations[edit]



  1. ^ "S. Epatha Merkerson" in 'Come Back, Little Sheba'". The Leonard Lopate Show, 2008-02-22. WNYC, New York. Elapsed time approx. 15:50. Retrieved 2008-02-23
  2. ^ a b "Exclusive: S. Epatha Merkerson exits 'Law & Order'". ausiellofiles.ew.com. Retrieved April 1, 2010. 
  3. ^ a b c d "Interview with S. Epatha Merkerson". The Wendy Williams Show. Retrieved January 31, 2012. 
  4. ^ Labbé-DeBose, Theola (January 18, 2012). "TV One's 'Find Our Missing' highlight African Americans who vanished". The Washington Post. Retrieved May 28, 2012. 
  5. ^ S. Epatha Merkerson Biography (1952–)
  6. ^ a b c d e Stated in interview on Inside the Actors Studio
  7. ^ Wait Wait – June 11, 2005
  8. ^ "S. Epatha Merkerson in 'Come Back, Little Sheba'". The Leonard Lopate Show, 2008-02-22. WNYC, New York. Elapsed time approx. 15:50. Retrieved 2008-02-23
  9. ^ "Longtime Actor Discusses Race on the Screen and Stage". NPR. Retrieved February 12, 2009. 
  10. ^ Gerard, Jeremy, "Lonette McKee Leaves 'Lady Day' Over Health," New York Times, February 21, 1987.
  11. ^ "Closing the Case With Law & Order's S. Epatha Merkerson" tv.com, Retrieved January 31, 2012
  12. ^ Law and Order Actress Sued TMZ.com, December 25, 2008

External links[edit]